Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons speaking about voter registration in Mississippi
Of course, in the state of Mississippi for the most part, African American people could not register to vote. There were all kinds of ways to prevent that from happening; from just sheer terror to you know counting the number of marbles in a jar, and just all kinds of ridiculous things, so one of the plans that we had for Mississippi’s Freedom Summer was that we were going to show to the world, particularly to the United States, that if black people could register to vote, they would. They would register, and they would vote. And the way we opted to do that was to have mock voter registration, so that people could come and register in a safe place. We would have all the forms, and there would be no repercussions. And then we were going to have elections where they would vote for delegates to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. People understood that we were planning to challenge the regular Democratic Party for those seats, in Atlantic City, where the Democratic National Committee — Convention was being held.
So people knew what we were doing. They knew that this was a plan for us to take over the Democratic Party in the state of Mississippi, if we could, and they were all for it. So to me, this was, I mean you know one of the things we taught in the freedom schools was about citizenship you know, and the Constitution and what it meant, and how the government operated at the national level, at the state level. So we had to do a lot of teaching people what it all meant, why voting was so important. And believe you me, those folk who were already a part of the NAACP and activists, they knew. They were very aware. And some of these men who became involved were veterans, so we had that kind of grouping of people there.
So it was just an incredible exercise and on the days of the elections, just to see people coming and the box sitting there and people putting their ballots in there, and you know we had refreshments; it was like a very festive kind of occasion and the fact that we had, as a part of our freedom school, literacy classes. So we had people who didn’t read or write coming in the evenings to learn how to do that. But the hunger for knowledge that people had for how our government operates, for how it should operate, that was so inspiring to me just to see that. And so people were not only from Laurel but out in the county — farmers, and others who came in to participate. So it was just so inspiring, just wonderful to be a part of that, and what it taught me about the power of people if you give them information, if you give them just a little bit of help.